50 Years of Music: 1998 – Silver Jews - "Random Rules"

Martin Douglas

As KEXP celebrates its 50th anniversary, we're looking back at the last half-century of music. Each week in 2022, KEXP pays homage to a different year and our writers are commemorating with one song from that year that resonates with them. This week, Martin writes a short fiction story based on what is arguably the greatest single David Berman ever released.

Wood paneled walls; the flickering of neon signs advertising domestic beer. Very common scenery. But somewhere in rural Kentucky, there is a bar that has Silver Jews on the jukebox. I know this because I’ve been dumping money into it for the past two hours.

Nobody’s audibly complained about it yet, but you’ve also gotta look around this place to see why. I may not be the biggest man here, but I’m most certainly the blackest. And this state’s open carry laws probably make the clientele here a little reluctant to confront a Black man with a leather firearm holster. 

Besides, none of the people here would argue against Silver Jews being a country band. Those debates are usually reserved for coastal MFA candidates who only listen to indie rock. 

I’m sittin’ at the bar next to this woman. Tall, sandy blonde hair, pretty, and looks like she knows how to take apart a car engine. She’s got an imprint on her finger where a ring used to be. That observation reminded me of Silver Jews’ best song, and that’s how I started a conversation with her. It’s not a date, but I’m wearing my white cowboy hat, and my denim shirt is tucked in, and I just bought her a drink.

So maybe it looks like a date to some of these white boys giving me the evil eye.

A few minutes ago I programmed the jukebox to play American Water in its entirety, but it’s still cycling through the remainder of The Natural Bridge. The lady sittin’ next to me at the bar asks me what I do for a livin’. I told her I was a bounty hunter, which is a half-truth at best. In my line of work, the existential human condition is unavoidable. There’s a sense of spiritual boredom in a lot of Silver Jews’ best work. But also the ability to look at the world with wide eyes and an open heart. As the cliché goes, we contain multitudes, right?


She drinks two whiskey neats for every beer I finish, and her speech is clearer and her thoughts more coherent than mine while we conversate. (To be fair, I’ve had a lot of beers this evening.) While we conversate, she tells me she used to be in a rock ‘n roll band. Singin’ and playin’ tambourine for minimum wage and drink tickets all across America. She came back to Kentucky to take care of her mama, who’s got the cancer. Stage 3 and it ain’t lookin’ too bright. She shows me the callouses on her hands and tells me she’s been workin’ on the neighbor’s farm to make ends meet, growin’ spinach and fixing tractors. 

Turns out we both know a thing or two about existentialism. Preparin’ to lose a parent will do that to ‘ya. When your ma or your pop is headed to the great unknown, you can’t help but wonder about the eternal soul of us humans, most of all your own. I feel for her. I lost my pa to a bullet, but in some ways that’s more comfortin’ than havin’ to watch him deteriorate. A sad thought seems to always linger in the back of her mind as we talk, like she’s got early onset grief. 

Then, American Water starts playin’, startin’ with the flawless grace of its openin’ track.

A small space for dancin’ lay on the floor next to the jukebox. I extend my hand to her with a smile, the international sign for invitin’ her to dance. She smiles but seems reluctant. I smile back, only to acknowledge she could probably use a dance. She takes my hand and says she’s never turned down a dance from a charmin’ enough stranger. Stephen Malkmus’s guitar sounds almost conversational. His playing guided the sway of our hips to where they needed to go. 

We play a game where we apply American Water lyrics to our own lives. I told her in 1984, I too was hospitalized for approachin’ perfection. I was eight months old. She said she’s watched her mother kill an animal before. She has roamed all the places to go that her home is surrounded by, and now she’s a grown-up and she’s bored. All our favorite singers couldn’t sing. Back in the day, there were situations where a bottle of whiskey covered the rent for the month! We both laugh hysterically. She puts her hand with the missing wedding ring on my chest. I don’t ask her about it. 

I don’t think David Berman wrote songs as one of them “laugh to keep from cryin’” scenarios. I think he realized laughter and cryin’ ain’t that far removed from each other. Here in this bar, two complete strangers have bonded over the sadness and comic absurdity of life. The possibility that a big nothin’ probably awaits us in the afterlife. The songs of Silver Jews were the bridge between us. 

After another hour and a few glasses of water to sober up enough to continue my journey, I said goodbye. I shared a hug with my companion for the evening and crunched through the gravel parking lot toward my El Camino. For me, it’s onward to the next job. For her, a lot of logistics and plannin’ and cryin’, and maybe jumping back on the road to not have to think about her loss so much. 

Parked next to my car was a truck with a bumper sticker that read, “Honk if you’re lonely.” I laughed to myself and looked back to see if she maybe lit a cigarette, but by the time I caught a glimpse, she stepped past the door to the bar closin’, goin’ back inside. 

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